Oak Ridge resident, whittler, and woodworker Bill Henry was one of 10 people to earn a Governor’s Arts Award for representing the best in arts and culture in Tennessee in 2015.
Henry won a Folklife Heritage Award. He will receive the award, considered Tennessee’s highest honor in the arts, from Governor Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam on March 17.
Distinguished artists honored include Mary Costa, Dr. Bobby Jones, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, and Cormac McCarthy, a press release said.
“We want to congratulate the recipients for their incredible work adding to the rich cultural heritage of Tennessee,” Governor Haslam said. “Their dedication, leadership, and contributions to the arts have enhanced our way of life and will continue to influence Tennesseans for many years to come.”
The 2015 recipients are:
- Folklife Heritage Award: Bill Henry, whittler and woodworker, Oak Ridge
A self-identified “itinerant whittler,” folk craftsman Bill Henry has mastered over 200 forms and carved an estimated 20,000 pieces, many of which are on display in private and public collections, including the Smithsonian. His wood carvings include miniature tools, birdhouses, and more of what he describes as “Miniature Americana.” He has won numerous awards and honors, including The Southern Arts Craft Guild’s Heritage Preservation Award in 2012.
- Folklife Heritage Award: Jack Martin, Hockaday Handmade Brooms, Selmer
Artisan, educator, and devoted tradition bearer, Jack Martin of Selmer, Tennessee, is a fourth-generation broom maker continuing the craft he learned from his grandfather. Owner of Hockaday Handmade Brooms, Martin still operates his family’s nearly 100-year-old equipment, creating every broom by hand. His brooms are found in prestigious museum and archival collections, including the Smithsonian.
- Arts Leadership Award: Bill May, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg
Throughout its 100-year history, the Arrowmont School has been known as a source of education and enrichment. Located in the heart of Gatlinburg, this internationally recognized institution offers classes and creative experiences year-round in art forms such as crafting, painting, pottery, and glassmaking. Thanks to the leadership of Executive Director Bill May, this pinnacle of history can welcome another 100 years of learning and craft-making after May coordinated efforts to raise $8 million in seven months to save the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts from dissolution.
- Arts Leadership Award: Scott Niswonger, philanthropist, Greeneville
Greeneville businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger has been instrumental in bringing positive change to Northeast Tennessee. Leveraging his success in business to fuel his commitment to philanthropy, Niswonger has made a tremendous impact on the arts and education in the region through the Niswonger Foundation and the Niswonger Performing Arts Center.
- Arts Leadership Award: Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis
Started in 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music has again brought soul music and the Memphis Sound to the forefront of American culture, and restored the legacy of legendary recording studio Stax Records. During its remarkable 15-year run, the label scored countless hits and launched the careers of many iconic singers, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Sam & Dave, Albert King and the Staple Singers.
- Distinguished Artist Award: Mary Costa, opera singer, Knoxville
As the beloved Princess Aurora, Mary Costa brought both her voice and personality to the 1959 Disney classic “Sleeping Beauty,” and emerged as an international artist who has graced the stages of opera, concert, theatre, television, and movies. In a stellar career that has included performances in 38 operatic roles, she has performed in the world’s top opera houses, including The Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Opera House. She was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the National Council on the Arts from 2003-2007.
- Distinguished Artist Award: Dr. Bobby Jones, gospel musician, Nashville
Dr. Bobby Jones is a torchbearer for gospel music in Tennessee and the world. He is an acclaimed singer who has released 14 albums, toured internationally and won many honors, including Stellar Awards, Dove Awards and a Grammy Award for his single with Barbara Mandrell, “I’m So Glad I’m Standing.” He also wrote and produced the first black gospel opera, “Make a Joyful Noise.” He founded and continues to lead the premier gospel group, the Nashville Super Choir.
- Distinguished Artist Award: B.B. King, blues singer-songwriter, Memphis
B.B. King continues to reign as the unchallenged “King of the Blues.” King’s legacy and influence far exceeds the blues and qualifies him as one of a handful of the most influential American musicians of the past century. His name is synonymous with Memphis and Beale Street. In 1948, King got his first big break performing on Memphis radio that led to his own show on the legendary WDIA. Over the past 70 years, he has released over 50 albums, received 15 Grammy awards, and was named one of the top 10 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. He is an inductee in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Distinguished Artist Award: Loretta Lynn, country music singer-songwriter, Hurricane Mills
For 50 years, Loretta Lynn has fashioned a body of work as artfully and commercially successful and culturally significant as any female performer you’d care to name. Her music has confronted many of the major social issues of her time and her rags-to-riches story from the poverty of the Kentucky Hills to Nashville superstardom all have led to her current status as an American icon. With over 160 songs and 60 albums to her credit and 40 million records sold worldwide, Lynn is the most-awarded woman in country music. Loretta Lynn’s Ranch located at Hurricane Mills in Humphreys County is one of Tennessee’s top tourist attractions.
- Distinguished Artist Award: Cormac McCarthy, novelist, Knoxville
Here is more information about Henry:
A self-identified “itinerant whittler,” folk craftsman Bill Henry has mastered over 200 forms and carved an estimated 20,000 pieces, many of which are on display in private and public collections, including the Smithsonian. His wood carvings include miniature tools, birdhouses, working wooden padlocks, and more of what he describes as “Miniature Americana.” He demonstrated his whittling at the Smithsonian Folklife Festive during America’s Bicentennial in 1976 and again in 1983. Henry became a member of the Southern Highland Arts Guild in 1965 and a lifetime member in 1991. His service to the folk arts includes his charter membership of the Foothills Craft Guild, an organization for which he also served as the first president. He has won numerous awards and honors, including The Southern Arts Craft Guild’s Heritage Preservation Award in 2012.
Now 85, Henry has spent over 50 years representing Tennessee culture and crafts to the nation, not just as a practitioner but also as an advocate of the folk arts. Living up to his itinerant nature, he continues to travel a circuit through Tennessee and beyond, carving and sharing his devotion to southern folk art forms and the cultures from which they come. He has served as artist-in-residence at Callaway Gardens in Georgia and at Peter’s Valley in New Jersey and has also appeared at the National Folk Festival, the Mercer Folk Festival, the Fall Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia, and many more. A voracious student as well, in 1976 he apprenticed himself to whittler Alex Stewart of Hancock County, where he learned the art of coopering, or making wooden barrels and pails, without the use of nails or other adhesives.
Another of Henry’s strengths is his ability to recognize traditional art forms and folk culture. Henry successfully nominated both mountain craftsman Alex Stewart and blacksmith Bea Hensley for National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Longtime friend and The Heartland Series’ host Bill Landry says, “I do not believe anyone alive has done more in support of heritage preservation than Bill Henry.”
Born in a coal mining camp in Gatliff, Kentucky, Henry moved to Clairfield, Tennessee, in 1939 and then to Oak Ridge as a teenager. After a stint away from home in the military, Henry returned to Oak Ridge where he has stayed to the present. He eventually became employed as a chemical operator for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Working in the Hot Cells Department of ORNL’s Operations Division, Henry’s responsibilities included running special tests at fixed intervals. In 1976, Henry took a leave of absence from ORNL to further develop his wood-working skill with Alex Stewart. He returned to ORNL and stayed until his retirement in 1986, all the while continuing to keep alive a once common, but now almost forgotten, folk art.
For locals and visitors alike, Henry retains a kindness and modesty that make young and old feel comfortable, connected, and curious about the old ways that he preserves and shares. The Knoxville News Sentinel’s Sam Venable, a longtime friend to and frequent observer of Henry, asserts that “every person he talks to comes away feeling like they have not only met a skilled craftsmen, but Southern Appalachian’s best in warmth and hospitality. Quite simply, there isn’t a pretentious bone in his body.”
Today Henry can still be found on his front porch on warm days. With legs crossed at the knee, glasses low on his nose and band-aids on his fingers, he whittles with great concentration and sands finished pieces to meet his own high expectations.
Bios for all the recipients are available here.